Ear Damage a Downside of Roller Coaster Rides

MONDAY May 3, 2010 -- Roller coaster riders are at risk for a common ear injury that can cause temporary hearing loss and pain, a new case study shows.

Researchers have linked the force of acceleration in roller coasters with ear barotrauma, which occurs when there's a quick change in pressure between the external environment, the ear drum and pressure in the middle ear space. This often occurs with altitude changes, such as during air travel or driving in the mountains.

Ear popping, dizziness, discomfort or pain are the most common effects of ear barotrauma, but it can also cause temporary hearing loss.

This case study involved a 24-year-old man who suffered pain and fullness in his right ear about 36 hours after riding a roller coaster that reaches a maximum speed of 120 mph within four seconds. Just as the roller coaster began to accelerate, the man turned to the left to speak to his girlfriend, which caused his right ear to sustain the full impact of the rapid acceleration.

An examination showed that his left ear was normal but his right ear canal was swollen and the ear drum inflamed, said otolaryngologists at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. They estimated that the patient's right ear was exposed to about 0.6 pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure when the roller coaster accelerated. The patient's symptoms improved within 72 hours.

The study was to be presented Friday at the Combined Otolaryngology Spring Meetings in Las Vegas.

"As roller coasters continue to push the envelope of speed, otolaryngologists need to be aware of this new cause of barotrauma to the ear. Based on our research, we recommend that passengers remain facing forward for the duration of the ride to not let the full impact of acceleration hit the ear," study senior author Dr. Kathleen Yaremchuk, chair of the department of otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital, said in a news release.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about ear barotrauma.

Posted: May 2010


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